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Must Jews ‘repent’ for voting for Trump?

Though a respected historian claims that backing the former president and Israel’s religious parties is “immoral,” politics is not a binary choice between good and evil.

Then-President Donald Trump speaks on a video screen during the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Then-President Donald Trump speaks on a video screen during the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the weeks before the observance of Rosh Hashanah, religious Jews give a lot of lip service to the idea of repentance. That is the main point of our observance in the Hebrew month of Elul, which serves as a prelude to the Ten “Days of Awe” that commence with the New Year and conclude with Yom Kippur. It is a time of year that Jews use for a cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of the soul,” and to assess where they have erred and seek to do better in the coming year. While it might be tempting for pundits to use this period as a vehicle for calling out the sins of politicians, interest groups and voters, that is always a mistake.

It’s true that many of us treat elections as if they offer us a binary choice between good and evil. I’ve often noted in recent years that politics now serves in the role that religion used to play in most people’s lives. But I would amend that observation to say that it’s apparent that a great many people now think of politics the way believers thought of religion—not in the 1950s but in the age of religious wars. The warring parties and their supporters are not only interested in defeating each other at the polls. Instead, they clearly wish to humiliate and drive their opponents from the public square, imprison and even burn them at the stake, if it were possible.

So, it is to be expected that there might be some voices raised during this Elul in which ideas rooted in faith about repentance and redemption should be applied to players on the political stage. But predictably, even when such an effort comes from a serious and sober commentator, the result is hopelessly subjective and ultimately deeply misleading.

That’s the only way to view a disappointing column published last week in The Jerusalem Post by historian Gil Troy that ran under the headline: “Corrupt, amoral religious Jews in US, Israel—repent for political sins.” The upshot of it was that the strong support for former President Donald Trump among Orthodox Jews is amoral and sinful. He didn’t just stop there but said that even if these people voted against Trump in the upcoming presidential primaries and general election, it wasn’t enough. Clearly giving away to his own intemperate view of the events of the last eight years, he claimed that “it won’t undo the moral stench developed over years of Orthodox fealty to this monstrous man.”

He applied the same verdict to those Israelis who vote for the haredi religious parties and the Religious Zionist alliance for the Knesset, all of whom now serve in the current government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While such intemperate rhetoric is hardly unusual these days, when such arguments are made by a man of Troy’s caliber and temperament, they deserve careful consideration and a response. That’s especially true since not only is he one of the finest Jewish historians of his generation, but he also has the distinction of being that rare figure in the world of contemporary Israeli letters who has not been driven off the deep end by the debate about judicial reform. His ability to retain his grasp on reality with respect to the question of whether Israeli democracy is imperiled by judicial reform—and to assert that it is not—cannot be praised too highly. Still, that hasn’t prevented him from coming to some over-the-top and emotional reactions to the question of voting for Trump and the Israeli religious parties.

With respect to Israel, the arguments he assembles to note the genuinely awful impact of the empowerment of the haredi parties are very much on point. But the claim that religious Israeli voters are immoral to vote for these admittedly imperfect and often foolish parties that represent them is to ignore the realities of the politics of that country. Politics in Israel is essentially tribal, and those who identify as haredi believe that the only method for defending the interests of their community is to vote for those whose only interest is in doing just that, irrespective of the impact on the rest of society. In another political system where the parliament wasn’t selected by proportional vote, this wouldn’t be necessary. It’s also true that the intense hostility they encounter from many secular Jews makes it inevitable that they would choose their tribe at the ballot box. The religious Zionists feel the same way since secular parties don’t prioritize issues like security for the Jews who live in Judea and Samaria, which is most important to them.

That may all be unfortunate, and a better constitution (or any at all) might make it less likely. But such voting patterns in which people vote to protect their interests by electing imperfect and sometimes less than commendable persons is neither amoral nor sinful. To represent that choice in such a manner to the largely American readership of English-language Israeli and Jewish publications is both misleading and likely to widen the already fearfully large gap that exists between American and Israeli Jews.

Trump and morality

The arguments about Trump are less straightforward; still, it’s wrong for Troy or anyone else to cast the 2024 presidential race in such a simple binary fashion as a choice between virtue and sin.

Troy is right to argue that Trump has been a norm-buster ever since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower and into the nation’s political life in June 2015. And there have been occasions when he has done or said things that deserved censure. For example, as I wrote at the time, his puzzling and wrongful decision to publicly dine with antisemites like Kanye West and Nick Fuentes in 2022 could not be rationalized or excused. But even though I said that his Jewish supporters needed to “condemn and disavow him” after that, I would not go so far as to say that those who have stuck with him are immoral.

To be fair, Troy acknowledged that Trump’s support for Israel eclipsed that of all of his predecessors as well as the man who succeeded him in 2021. But he’s also right to assert that while the former president is entitled to gratitude, it doesn’t give him a right to perpetual support, let alone a pass for his wrongful conduct. Jewish Republicans can choose someone else as their presidential nominee next year.

But as things stand now, that won’t happen. Though the first votes won’t be cast until mid-January, the size of Trump’s current lead—an astonishing 39% over his nearest competitor— is such that it’s possible to argue that the race is effectively over before it even starts. At this point, it will take an act of Divine Providence for someone other than Trump to be the GOP nominee.

Yet rather than excoriate all those voters, including Orthodox Jews who tend to vote disproportionately for Republicans, as sinners, Troy would do well to spend more time trying to understand their position. Like it or not, Republicans, including those who would prefer a different nominee, will vote for Trump in the general election in the same way that most Democrats will vote for President Joe Biden, even if they, too, would prefer someone else to be on the ballot for a host of reasons.

They do so because one can judge Trump for his failings and even deplore his conduct since the November 2020 election while still coming to the conclusion that, for all of his faults, returning him to the White House would be far preferable to giving Biden another four years.

Troy hones in on Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the consequences of that stand including the inexcusable U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and he’s not wrong to say that the former president’s behavior was egregious. But he goes further than that, viewing the last eight years of his conduct as uniformly indefensible.

According to Troy, “Trump lied, manipulated, demagogued and polarized, damaging, damaging the trust and mutual respect among Americans every functional democracy needs.”

Two different understandings

The nearly half of the country that is already telling pollsters they will vote for him might reply that the same can be said of the Democrats and Biden, who is, whether a mainstream media that acts as his bodyguards will admit it or not, every bit as much of a fabulist and demagogue as Trump.

They would argue that, in retrospect, the promotion of the Russian collusion hoax by Democrats, the corporate media, Big Tech and some elements of the permanent government bureaucracy was more of an attempted coup than the idiotic, violent break-in at the Capitol.

They would argue that the 2020 election was held under singular COVID rules with little accountability and little respect for pre-existing norms about voter integrity. They might cite the silencing of reporting about Biden family corruption in the weeks before the 2020 election by the same forces that promoted the lies about Russia that sabotaged much of Trump’s term in office as a reason to not just excuse Trump to discredit the Democrats. That may not excuse Trump’s refusal to accept the results once the votes were counted, but it does explain why Republicans have long since stopped treating the Democrats and the mainstream media as credible sources.

Some Republicans also think Trump’s outlier approach to a governing system that is clearly still in need of a president who despises the Washington establishment is exactly what America requires. They could also take note of Biden’s embrace of dangerous woke policies and intemperate rhetoric about his opponents as well as his administration’s illegal collusion with Big Tech to attempt to silence dissent.

More than that, they think that by trying to imprison Trump for conduct that might have been wrongful or stupid but not illegal, the Democrats are doing more harm to democracy than the 45th president’s blather and foolish tweets ever did. Indeed, revulsion for these banana republic tactics is exactly why so many Republicans are rallying behind Trump, seemingly rendering the primary race a foregone conclusion.

And that’s even before Jews who care about Israel factor Biden’s terrible policies into their decisions.

Is that enough of an argument to justify voting for Trump? Democrats will adamantly disagree and say, like Troy, that Trump is a monster and uniquely bad.

Politics is about choice, not sin

All this proves is that in a country where most people read, listen and watch different sets of partisan media outlets and isolate themselves from contrary views on social media, the two sides are not only not hearing each other but consider their opponents to be beyond the pale. In the end, most voters will simply decide whether or not Trump’s obvious flaws and misdeeds outweigh those of Biden.

Making such judgments is what happens in a democracy. Though we may deplore those who don’t share our opinions, to bring religion and ideas about sin into the equation is the death knell of democracy, which cannot function in a society where the two sides aren’t willing to agree to disagree.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches and throughout 5784, let’s have no more of these lectures about morality in an election where both sides can be justly accused of violating norms. Vote for the candidate you prefer, but spare us the holier-than-thou sermonizing about sinful behavior. I have no idea how Americans or Israelis will get themselves out of the impasses in which intemperate political disagreements have landed them. But we must hope—and pray—that sooner or later, reason will prevail, and we’ll all get back to a mindset in which politics is not a rerun of the age of religious wars.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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